The Lustrons, those wonderful pastel colored, prefabricated porcelain enamel and all steel houses from the late 1940s were called “one of the most revolutionary ideas to come out of the post-war building era” yet many people have never heard of them. Which is ironic because Bradford is one of the few towns in the United States that can claim that five of these unique homes are still a part of our community.
The Lustrons were the brainchild of Carl Strandlund, a Chicago entrepreneur, who saw the postwar housing shortage following the return of GIs after World War II and recognized the need for affordable, durable, and quick to build homes. Using impressive loans from the US government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), the Lustron Company was formed in 1947 in Columbus, Ohio and began manufacturing prefabricated homes that would “defy weather, wear, and time.”
The concept was simple. Each house was made of steel panels with a sturdy steel frame with a concrete slab foundation. Everything was metal, from the kitchen cupboards to the interior walls, drawers, vanities, bookcases, closets, doors, windows, ceilings, etc. House parts were
constructed and delivered on trucks to the building site where, it was promised, a house could be built in 10 days.
It seemed to be the perfect solution to the nationwide housing shortage.
A. Miller & Sons Lumber of Bradford was given the franchise to assemble the homes in McKean, Elk, and surrounding counties although apparently only Lustrons in Bradford were ever built. Each home cost about $10,000 or about $105,000 in today’s money.
The first Lustron house was built on speculation at 176 Williams St. in 1949. Protests from local contractors began almost immediately. Local Sheet Metal Union No. 94 picketed the house while it was being built, claiming that jurisdiction of work was being violated. The Bradford Building Trades Council argued that the metal chimney was against the city’s building code and declared such construction was unsafe. They also complained that the city council had approved changes in the chimney code for Lustrons but no other homes.
Problems solved, and hard feelings smoothed over, the building of the first Lustron continued. It was finished in June, and a week long open house was held on June 11, 1949 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Over 3,000 people toured the house.
Within a year, four other Lustrons were also built. These homes still exist and can be found at 26 Parkway Lane, 26 Brook Street, and 322 and 326 Interstate Parkway. Each of the Bradford Lustrons feature the “Westchester Deluxe” design: two bedrooms, with a small porch on the side.
Each are company colors: dove grey, maize yellow, or desert tan. The Williams Street Lustron is dove grey; the Parkway Lane house is maize yellow; the Interstate Lustrons are dove gray and desert tan. It appears that the Brook Street Lustron’s exterior has been painted; no doubt it also was dove gray.
Today, Lanny and Carita Larson and their daughter live at 176 Williams St., and were thrilled to let me take a look at their Lustron home. They’ve lived there for 12 years and are still in love with their unique house. Very little remodeling has been done to their home and it retains the original features. To prove it, Carita Larson banged on the ceiling with a broom to demonstrate that it was metal, along with all the walls.
Pictures and photographs are hung with magnets. Hidden cupboards with sliding doors hold lots of storage. The front and back doors are metal with a single light of translucent, rippled glass. The zig zag trellis, a trademark of the Lustrons, is still there at the rear corner downspout. The windows, except for one, are all original aluminum. Even the chimney is metal; and contrary to the 1949 complaint by the Bradford Building Trades Council, it has never caught fire. Carita Larson’s favorite feature is the built-in bookcase in the living room. Both Larsons agree that they love the single floor layout and the convenience of a metal home.
I also talked with Marilyn Roslinski, who lives in the maize yellow Lustron on Parkway Lane. She bought her home in January 2015 and loves the sound of the rain on the metal roof. “But,” she said with a laugh, “to this day I don’t think insurance companies understand what a Lustron is.” Her home has been modified somewhat — an addition was added to the back some years ago but the interior colors are still the same — a cool gray living area and a yellow kitchen.
Both Larsons and Roslinski note that heating and cooling a metal house can be challenging!
Meanwhile, the Lustron Company was struggling as steel was in short supply after the war. The company had promised to build 100 homes a day, but fell far short of that. With manufacturing and shipping costs on the increase, the company could not survive. In February 1950 it declared bankruptcy and defaulted on the $34 million dollar loan from the US government.
All told, The Lustron Company built 2,498 homes between 1947-1949. Of these, less than 2,000 remain. Bradford is lucky to have five surviving examples of such an iconic moment in architectural history.
Bradford’s Lustron homes have indeed, “defied weather, wear, and time” for 70 years.
(Sally Costik is the curator of the Bradford Landmark Society.)